Graduate school study of parasite inspires passion for teaching science

Credit: Hadley Leggett Sandeep Ravindran

Sandeep Ravindran advanced the understanding of Toxoplasma.

For Sandeep Ravindran, one of the best parts of being a Stanford graduate student had nothing to do with the lab.

In 2008, Ravindran participated in the 'Stanford at the Tech' program, which lets graduate students spend one morning a week teaching the public about genetics at the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose. 'I loved being able to get out of the lab and actually talk about science with the general public,' said Ravindran. 'People had way more knowledge than I expected, but they also had big gaps in their understanding.'

To help fill those gaps, Ravindran, 27, drew on his expertise as a graduate student in microbiology and immunology. For his thesis, he studied how the parasite Toxoplasma gondii secretes proteins, called effectors, to take over a host cell. Although about 30 percent of the world's population is infected with Toxoplasma, scientists still have much to discover about how the bug invades human cells.

'When I started, there was little known about how this parasite secretes proteins into host cells, and no one was really studying it,' he said. 'I was intrigued by how little we understood.'

Working in the lab of John Boothroyd, PhD, professor of microbiology and immunology, Ravindran discovered a chemical that blocks secretion of Toxoplasma effector proteins and prevents the bug from causing infection. Then, taking advantage of the collaborative nature of Stanford's graduate program, he spent three months in a neighboring chemistry lab synthesizing a new form of the drug.

Although Ravindran's chemical is too toxic to be used as a clinical treatment, his discovery taught scientists a lot about the basic biology of parasitic infections. 'Toxoplasma is a close cousin of the parasite that causes malaria,' Ravindran said. 'So by learning how to block Toxoplasma, we may also learn how to interrupt the malaria cycle.'

Ravindran enjoyed working in the lab, but he says he found his calling at the Tech Museum, while teaching first graders how to extract DNA from beef. 'I've always been interested in writing and communicating about science, but the Stanford Tech program really solidified my interest in popularizing science.'

After graduation, Ravindran plans to take his passion for educating the public about science one step further by becoming a science writer in New York City.

Hadley Leggett was a science-writing intern in the medical school's Office of Communication & Public Affairs.

Stanford Medicine integrates research, medical education and health care at its three institutions - Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford Health Care (formerly Stanford Hospital & Clinics), and Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford. For more information, please visit the Office of Communication & Public Affairs site at

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